By Sugeeswara Senadhira*
The visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Al Hussein to Sri Lanka last week marked a definite shift in the UN stand on the call for an international probe on the alleged human rights violations in the last phase of the armed conflict between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. He emphasized that it is for the Sri Lankan government to finally decide on the composition of the court which has to be appointed to probe if there were violations of human rights in the last phase of the conflict or not. He also clarified that it is not a ‘war crime’ investigation.
Although many government supporters are jubilant over this development, objective analysts are of the view that it will not be prudent for Sri Lanka to become complacent, thinking that all is well. Colombo should understand that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is only a bureaucrat and the final authority lies with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Although the top bureaucrat’s report would influence the Council, the powerful members of this 47-nation body will have to be satisfied that Sri Lanka is moving in the right direction with total commitment.
Gestures such as the singing of the National Anthem in Tamil, pardon given to the LTTE cadre who had attempted to assassinate President Sirisena when he was a minister have been highly appreciated as evidence of government’s ability to take bold and reconciliatory steps.
However, Sri Lanka cannot ignore the fact that the Commissioner had once criticized the judicial and law enforcement systems in Sri Lanka in a bid to support his argument for foreign participation in the probe. He had called the Sri Lankan judiciary highly politicized, unbalanced and unreliable and had said the police, all too frequently, continued to resort to violence and the size of the military force in the North and the East could be reduced. He had also urged the authorities to return some of the land acquired by the military to rightful owners in the Northeastern part of the country.
Although Commissioner Hussein has reiterated the need for implementation of the UNHRC resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, he has simultaneously told the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to act with patience. In other words, the High Commissioner wants to give time and space for the government to act but not allow it to slide on the slope of complacency. The government leaders had complained to the Commissioner that if some unpopular measures unacceptable to the vast majority are taken in a hurry, there could be mass resistance unleashing chaos and instability and which could consequently create obstacles in the path to national reconciliation.
To the utter disappointment of those who had expected UN Human Rights chief to rebuff President Sirisena’s bold statement that Sri Lanka will not need foreign judges, Commissioner Hussein said it was the sovereign right of Sri Lanka to decide on the accountability process. He praised the new Sri Lankan leadership and said the government had shown a will to bring about great changes and that Sri Lanka had many excellent judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials.
While assuring the government’s intention to cooperate with the UN, President Sirisena explained the need for proceeding on this front in a steady and cautiois manner. Sustenance of peace and political stability in the country, the President noted is required to create an atmosphere conducive for the successful and implementation of the programs for reconciliation and economic development in Sri Lanka.
Having demonstrated its intention to reconcile the disaffected communities with the mainstream Sri Lankan society, the media statements delivered Commissioner Hussein suggest that this specialized UN agency sees pragmatism in the reasons elucidated by the President related to the pace at which the government wants the peace program to unfold in this island nation.
Answering questions on the government’s political will for the implementation of the UNHRC proposals, the Human Rights High Commissioner said that he was reassured when he heard both President and the Prime Minister state their firm commitment in this regard.
The leaders of TNA during their meeting with the Human Rights High Commissioner had highlighted the need for the UNHRC resolution to be fully implemented through a credible process. After listening to them patiently, Commissioner Hussein urged them to be patient. Hence the TNA as well as the Tamil People’s Council (TPC) led by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran will now have no option but to be satisfied with an internal judiciary process for the probe into the alleged disappearances and other violations of human rights.
After his meeting with President Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat on February 9, Prince Hussein praised the steps taken by the government during the last 12 months. In his media briefing he refrained from insisting on the involvement of foreign judges in Sri Lanka’s accountability process. “There was no invocation of an international investigation, and the process is going to be a Sri Lankan one,” he said.
No sooner than the Human Rights High Commissioner left the shores, Sri Lanka received another respite from another high-ranking official of the World Body. Pablo de Greiff, the UN Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence, has said that Sri Lanka should not be hasty in trying to meet its commitments to the UNHRC in regard to issues of transitional justice.
Pablo de Greiff visited Sri Lanka from January 26 to February 1 and issued report after his return to the Headquarters. “There is no country that can accomplish all this in a short period of time. Sri Lanka has embarked on an ambitious process that should not be prepared, let alone implemented, in haste,” he stated in his report.
The UN Special Rapporteur added that those that are familiar with transitional processes in different parts of the world do not expect Sri Lanka to adopt measures for the sake of demonstrating compliance with commitments that the country has made.
There were positive as well as negative aspects in the statement made by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Instead of gloating over positives or gloom over negatives, Sri Lanka has to prepare for the March Session of the UNHRC. Sri Lanka is likely to gain more time at the March Session, but the Session of September 2016 will not be a cake walk.
UN Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence noted that the Lankan government has simultaneously taken up a variety of tasks, including constitutional reform, and all these will need time to complete. However, he felt that some things can be done in the short term to create confidence. Among tasks which can be done immediately, he mentioned the return of lands held by the military; launching of victims’ assistance programs; giving psycho-social support; toning by the judicial system, and tracing missing persons.
As President Sirisena said earlier this month, Sri Lanka has to face to UNHRC resolution in order to save the pride of the country and its people and the pride and honour of the armed forces. Hence, Colombo needs to take concrete steps towards speedy reconciliation.
*Sugeeswara Senadhira is the Director (Research & International Media) at the Presidential Secretariat, Colombo. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at: [email protected])
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